Social distancing as church discipline

socialdistancingRecently, I’ve had a couple of discussions about the meaning & application of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. Of particular interest was v11: But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one.

What follows is an edited bit of email correspondence on the subject.


The practical application of church discipline, particularly after someone has been excommunicated, is a significant challenge. . . .

Church discipline is the means by which a church recovers a straying member. When correction & recovery becomes impossible (serious, unrepentant sin), a church will remove a member to publicly declare that, absent repentance, the wayward member is no longer considered to be in the faith. Even in the worst cases, the goal of excommunication is redemption, not judgment (1Cor 5:5).

On attending services – This provision is not about remaining friendly but about allowing a presumptive unbeliever to sit under the preaching of the word. I would allow [Bill] to sit in on a service in the same way that I would allow any other unrepentant sinner to enter our gathering (1Cor 14:24-25). While I would consider him to be an outsider (Mat 18:17), is there a better place for this man to be than sitting under the authority God’s word?

On not associating – Wise application on this point can be tough, especially since there’s debate over interpretation. I think we need to start with the broader context which is Paul’s shock that the Corinthians are tolerating flagrant, unrepentant sin as if they’re big enough to handle it (1Cor 5:2, 6). In that light, Paul’s instruction to “not associate” and “not even eat” with the individual is an especially strong response to the church’s inaction. That said, I don’t think Paul is simply writing for rhetorical effect, I think he means what he says. But what does he mean?

  1. Option 1: total separation– on this view Paul means that whether inside or outside of the church gathering, Christians are to have no contact with the excommunicated member. Your break off all contact/communication.
  2. Option 2: congregational distancing – on this view Paul is instructing the corporate body and he means that the gathered church is to separate from the excommunicated member. This would include the fellowship meal of which communion was a part.

My view is closer to Option 1 but I would leave room for personal interaction so long as my interaction was for the purpose of communicating my sorrow and their need for repentance.

Having said all of that, the practice of excommunication is a challenge for three reasons. First, a local church needs to nail down what they understand the Scriptures to teach concerning church discipline and that’s hard because of the interpretive issues with the text and because no two cases are exactly the same.

Second, the pastors need to clearly communicate to the body in every scenario so as to minimize misunderstandings. [I take it that excommunication is a decision for the church to make (Mat 18:17) but pastors will lead the body through the process.] For example, what do the pastors mean if they were to encourage the body to “reach out” to the excommunicated—have them over for dinner? check in with them over a cup of coffee? contact them to let them know I’m praying for them?

Third, even if there is clear teaching & communication on the case at hand, members have the challenge of wisely responding to a host of situations/tests/opportunities that will come to them as they move forward. Life won’t be simple and neat––especially for those who previously enjoyed a close relationship with the former member. . . .

Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt. 2)

I’m sure many of our churches miss the “mark” of church discipline for a variety of reasons — they don’t have the stomach for it, fear the consequences, lack confidence in the biblical imperative, etc. But I’m also sure that many churches flounder in their discipline because they intuitively know they lack the standing to exercise the authority granted to them by Christ himself (Mat 16:18-19; 18:15-20). Consider two examples:

1) Discipleship — This is an increasingly difficult feature to cultivate in today’s local church. Discipleship requires time, personal involvement, patience, and many other personal commodities that we loath to relinquish. But discipleship is the means by which we instruct, encourage, correct, and even rebuke a brother so that we spare him (and us!) the pain of a more severe discipline down the line.

When a local church fails to cultivate a spirit of discipleship in the body they will often find themselves at a disadvantage when serious discipline is required. By failing to care for a member in the midst of a struggle against sin it becomes that much more difficult to show our concern by turning him out (1Cor 5:1-5). Should we actually excommunicate a member without prior intervention we show ourselves to be half-hearted followers of Christ.

2) Meaningful membership — Ever tried to discipline someone else’s kid? Awkward to say the least. Why should we be surprised to find that the absence of meaningful membership in a local church would create a similar tension in the face of sin. The church is responsible to care for her own which means that something should be said for knowing who belongs to whom.

It only stands to reason that Paul assumed a church was able to identify its members when he instructed a church to put a man out (1Cor 5:9-12) or not to associate with him (2Thess 3:14). Furthermore, it also stands to reason that those who were put out or “disfellowshipped” were able to notice a difference when it happened. That can’t happen in a church with mere attenders.

Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt.1)

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.
–Belgic Confession (1561), art. XXIX [emphasis added]

If we’re to believe historic confessions of the Protestant church, there was once a time when church discipline was actually considered a defining characteristic of the church. It (nearly?) boggles the mind of the 21st century churchman to consider that of all the practices which might define a church, church discipline would trump the others save preaching the Word and participating in the sacraments (i.e. baptism & communion). Why not preaching, sacraments, and fellowship? or making disciples? or mercy ministry?

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not church discipline is rightly considered a defining mark, at a minimum we can agree that Christ Himself prescribed such a mark as a normative part of church life. So do our churches bear this mark as part of the call to follow the commands of Christ (Mat 18:15-20; see also 1Cor 5:1-13)? I suspect the answer would vary drastically depending on the church but I also suspect such a question is increasingly irrelevant–maybe “unrealistic” is the better word. After all, it’s darn near impossible to hit a mark when you’re not even facing it.

A gathering of 2 or 3: church, jury, or none of the above?

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” {Mat 18:20, ESV}

Moving through a study of 1 Corinthians, our adult Sunday school classes explored 1Cor 3:16-17 where Paul declares “you are God’s temple” and “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him”. One of the points that we tried to make in our study is that the “you” in vv16-17 is plural (in the Greek) which means the temple Paul has in mind is the church not the individual Christian. Seizing the moment to emphasize the significance of the local church the author of our Sunday school literature wrote:

Tragically, many Christians dismiss the importance of the local church. They argue from verses like Matt 18:20 that when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, He is present; therefore, I don’t need to attend church. I can “have church” at home or at work if I am with at least one other believer. The only problem with this proof-text is that this verse is not talking about public worship; instead, it is dealing with church discipline.

This created a stir for at least one church member who read the paragraph as a denial of the long-held belief that 2 or 3 do, in fact, constitute a church. How should we think about this?

1) Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name does constitute a church. The “2 or 3” expression is Jesus’ explanation as to why the church retains the authority to make binding judgments (18:17-18). Consequently, 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name is a pithy way to allude to the church.

2) The point of Mat 18:20 is to show that the local church is authorized to exercise church discipline. Equating the role of the church (18:17-18) with the judgment of two or three (18:19-20) is a way to clarify that church discipline is binding for any church gathering regardless of the church’s size. Church discipline exercised by an assembly of 50 is just as authoritative as discipline enacted by an assembly of 5,000.

3) A church may not be less than a gathering of two or three but it is certainly more than that. In other words, the number of the gathering is not as important as the nature of the gathering (why have they assembled: to fish? to watch TV? to hear the Word? to share communion?). In this light we would need to go further and ask what it means for two/three Christians to gather “in My name”.

My conclusion: Two or three make a church except for when they don’t.